Related Web Feature: "Farmer or Taliban?"
Brian Mockenhaupt witnesses a surreal interaction between sniper and victim. (Also features on-location footage filmed by the author.)
Staff Sergeant Christopher Gerhart’s stomach rolled, queasy. He stood alone under a trellis heavy with fat bunches of white grapes, planted his hands against a mud wall, and stared at the ground, head rocking as “Love Lost in a Hail of Gunfire,” by the heavy-metal band Bleeding Through, blasted from his headphones. Gerhart had already deployed three times to Afghanistan and once to Iraq. Promoted 10 days earlier, he was 22, brash and outgoing. “You grow up quick out here,” he’d told me. “You’ve got to. You can’t be a little kid when your buddy gets blown up next to you.”
But Gerhart’s time in Afghanistan was nearly finished. He and his comrades from 2 Charlie—2nd Platoon, Charlie Company, 2-508th Parachute Infantry
Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division—would soon turn over their stretch of Kandahar’s Arghandab River Valley to their replacements. This morning, the two groups were patrolling together, the weary guiding the uninitiated. Before dawn, 36 soldiers had left the relative safety of Combat Outpost Tynes, a mile away, and walked into the lushness of the Arghandab’s grape fields and pomegranate orchards, land controlled by the Taliban. They took over an abandoned compound, a high-walled courtyard with two buildings along the north and east sides, each with several small rooms. The men of 2 Charlie knew what waited outside the compound’s walls. Their replacements, from B Battery, 1-320th Field Artillery Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, didn’t.
Video: Watch the soldiers of 2 Charlie on their final, harrowing assignment in Afghanistan
By 11 a.m., the temperature had climbed to a humid 100 degrees that soaked the soldiers’ uniforms with sweat and summoned a nagging thirst. In a few minutes, Gerhart and Sgt. Adam Lachance, the platoon’s forward observer, whose job was to coordinate rocket and bomb runs from helicopter gunships and jet fighters, would lead a dozen of the new soldiers through the nearby fields and orchards to find and kill the men who had been shooting at them in the compound all morning. Gerhart and his squad mates huddled over a map and plotted possible patrol routes. “It doesn’t matter which way we go,” he said, “because we’re going to get in a firefight, and we’re not going to get far.” He gathered the 101st soldiers. “I need you to have your game faces on,” he said. “This is what we do here every day. Welcome to the Arghandab.” The soldiers stared back, silent.
The paratroopers figured that the Talibs had zeroed in on the compound’s two entrances, at the southeast and southwest corners, and would shoot at the soldiers when they exited. To distract them, the soldiers would detonate a Claymore mine, which they had set up 30 feet outside the door—and, if the gunmen were close enough, maybe hit them with a few of the mine’s 700 ball bearings. Sgt. Dale Knollinger, a 22-year-old team leader in Gerhart’s squad, thick with muscle from daily workouts in Combat Outpost Tynes’s outdoor gym, picked up the clacker and squeezed it three times, sending a current down the wire. The mine roared, the ground shook, a dust cloud floated through the compound, and the soldiers whooped. But the laughter stopped a moment later. Mike, the platoon’s Afghan interpreter, intercepted a transmission over a handheld radio similar to those used by the Taliban. “Was that your bomb?” an insurgent asked, confused by the explosion. “No,” another answered. “I don’t know what that was.” So the area around the compound already contained at least one bomb, and probably many more.
Gerhart sighed, cursed, then sucked in a deep breath. He hugged Knollinger. “If I don’t have any legs, don’t let them save me,” he said, their faces close. Knollinger, seven other 82nd paratroopers, and one 101st soldier would be the quick-reaction force if the patrol found trouble. “I’m serious,” Gerhart said.
The men lined up at the southwest door and Gerhart charged out, firing his M-4 rifle. Lachance and 12 others followed, disappearing into the tangled greenery that lay outside the compound’s walls.
The replacement unit from the 101st had the misfortune to arrive at the height of fighting season in one of the most contested patches of Afghanistan. The Arghandab Valley, 60 miles northwest of the Pakistan border, in southern Afghanistan, stretches a mile and more on each side of the Arghandab River, to the north and west of Kandahar City. Lush by Afghan standards, it is dotted with farming villages and country homes of city residents. The mujahideen controlled it during the Russian occupation, and the Taliban have owned it for much of the time since. And for American soldiers, the Taliban have sown the land with bombs: hundreds, maybe thousands, triggered by pressure plates, trip wires, radio control, or 100-meter extension cords touched to a battery terminal at just the right moment. The Taliban shoot at the Americans too, with machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and mortars. The dense orchards and mazes of grape furrows and canals give the Taliban ample cover to hide weapons and send fighters into Kandahar City. The more of the Arghandab the Taliban control, the more freely they move. If the Americans want to protect Kandahar City—a critical location for pacifying southern Afghanistan—they must first tame the Arghandab.
Along the northern edge of the valley, on a patch of desert about 200 meters from a canal, sits Combat Outpost Tynes, a former school now surrounded by earthen barriers, guard towers, and concertina wire. The Americans, together with a small contingent of Afghan National Police, controlled everything north of the canal, because it is flat and open. Everything south of the canal—the roads and fields, a second canal, and the villages on toward the river—was up for grabs. Since their arrival in December 2009 at Tynes, the men of 2 Charlie, like all soldiers in Afghanistan, had been tasked with counterinsurgency operations: protecting the population, building schools and markets, mentoring local security forces, and empowering local government. But those are mostly wintertime activities in the Arghandab, when the trees are bare and soldiers can see farther than 100 meters, when they can bring blankets and coats to the villagers, talk to the elders, and elicit promises of cooperation. The warm weather brings battle. “It’s not a COIN fight here at all,” Lachance told me, referring to the U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine. “We can’t get past the second canal. It’s a chess game with the Taliban, only with bullets and IEDs.”
Lachance and his platoon mates called the area “The Devil’s Playground.” I’d seen the ledger of their time there, tallied in photographs. “He was killed. He was shot in the face. He broke his back,” Staff Sgt. Edward Rosa told me one night, pointing at pictures on a laptop screen in a small plywood-walled room at the outpost, part of a motel-like warren of sleeping quarters that 2 Charlie had built to augment the school’s half-dozen classrooms. “He’s gone. He’s gone. He’s gone,” Rosa said. His voice trailed off. 2 Charlie first came to Afghanistan in September 2009 with 42 soldiers; nearly half had been killed or wounded, mostly in the Arghandab.
But with the losses came experience. After months of patrolling the valley, the platoon had learned bloody lessons about where to walk, which areas to avoid, and how to spot an ambush or a hidden bomb. Even an infantry unit would have trouble adapting in the middle of fighting season, but the incoming 101st artillery unit, trained to fire cannons that can lob 100-pound shells up to 20 miles, had the added burden of learning a new job. They had trained for several months on infantry tactics before deploying. Now the best 2 Charlie could do was walk through the area with them, and pass on scraps of accumulated knowledge.
They started by taking several 101st leaders to the town of Babur, a mile away, where 2 Charlie had been repeatedly shot at and ambushed. Late on the afternoon of July 6, a column snaked out of the combat outpost and moved east; at a crossroads, the group split. I went with the 15 soldiers who continued east on Route Red Dog, toward Babur. A dozen others cut south 100 meters and walked along the canal, just inside the tree line. While one group of soldiers moved, the other would cover them, a leapfrog tactic called “bounding overwatch.” The split patrol moved forward, in parallel. Ahead, farmers bent at the waist and worked in their grape fields, pastoral and timeless. They’d soon leave for home to wash, pray, and eat. Some saw the patrol and stared. Others merely glanced up and then returned to their work.
A thunderclap rocked the tree line, and the concussion punched our ears and rolled through our chests. Beside us, along the canal, a cloud of smoke and dirt billowed 100 feet into the air, far above the trees, against a cloudless blue sky. “IED! IED! IED!” a soldier barked over the radio. Knollinger, leading the element along the road, ran into the field between the road and the canal, toward the explosion, yelling into the hand mike clipped to his vest. “I need a sitrep! I need a sitrep!” Soldiers answered, one by one, save for the two snipers with the patrol. “Viper 4,” Knollinger said. “Are you okay? Viper 4!” Sgt. Christopher Rush responded, dazed, his voice slow. “No, I’m not okay.” Beside him, his partner, Specialist Christopher Moon, lay in a crater five feet wide and two feet deep, his legs missing. The triggerman, hidden in the pomegranate orchard, had blown the bomb under Moon, the last man. Gerhart was 75 feet ahead on the canal trail. He ran back, past a few soldiers who had been knocked to the ground, uninjured. He knelt beside Moon, 20 years old, a high-school baseball star who had been courted by the Atlanta Braves, but had chosen the Army. I’d met Moon the day before, atop an earthen barrier beside Guard Tower 2 at the combat outpost, where he had squatted on two ammunition cans and barely moved, perched like a monk for a two-hour stretch. He rested his rifle on an iron beam and watched a compound a half mile south. He’d killed two fighters there earlier, as good at sniping as he’d been at baseball.
Now his right leg ended above the knee in a thick mass of muscle, skin, and shredded pant leg. His left leg ended in a piece of jagged, shockingly white shin bone. Blood drained into the dirt. Gerhart slipped black nylon tourniquets around the stumps. The 101st medic stood nearby and stared at his first battlefield casualty, stunned. “Ah, it hurts so bad,” Moon said. Gerhart cranked the tourniquets tight. “You’re going to be okay, buddy,” he said. Much of Moon’s gear had been torn away by the explosion. Soldiers removed the rest. Shrapnel had ripped through his arms, breaking the bones in so many places that his forearms bent and sagged at terrible angles. The medic slid a needle into Moon’s arm and started an IV drip of fluids, to replace the lost blood and keep him from slipping into shock. “I’m gonna fucking die,” Moon said. Soldiers wrapped bandages around his arms. Bright blood seeped through. “No, man, you’re going to be okay,” Gerhart said. Moon winced. “I got no legs,” he said.
Knollinger called for a medevac, and soldiers lifted Moon onto a stretcher and carried him into a plowed field, away from the crater and any secondary bombs. Back at the combat outpost, a dozen soldiers piled into four armored trucks and sped down Route Red Dog to provide added firepower against follow-on attacks. Moon lay in the sun. The bleeding had stopped. A half-dozen soldiers stood or knelt around him. “Where are the medevac birds?” Moon asked. He faded toward unconsciousness. “Wake up, Moon!” a soldier yelled. “Stay with me!” Gerhart, blood smeared across his uniform, stepped away from Moon and toward me, his voice low and quivering. “He’s gonna fucking die, man.” The trucks arrived, and soon after, the helicopter could be heard on the horizon, beating toward us. “Water,” Moon said, his voice a low moan. “Water, please.”
Shooting at medevac helicopters had become standard procedure for insurgents, so as the bird approached, low over the fields, soldiers in the gun trucks and on the ground opened up. In a rising racket of machine-gun and rifle fire, bullets shredded trees and kicked up dust in the grape furrows. The helicopter settled into the field and soldiers shielded Moon as dirt swirled over them from the rotor wash. They loaded Moon onto the bird, and his partner, Rush, climbed in beside him. The helicopter lifted and the gunfire ebbed. Knollinger crossed himself. For the next two hours, soldiers scoured the pomegranate orchard, the canal, and a marijuana field for pieces of Moon’s equipment, weapon, and legs, all of which had been scattered across a 100-foot radius. They found some of each, and walked home.
This had become a near-daily occurrence for Charlie Company. “The enemy knows if he punches you in the nose, and you sit down, he’s won,” Charlie’s commander, Captain Ryan Christmas, had told me two days earlier, on the Fourth of July. “But if you come back with a strangle move, you’ve won.” As I stood with Christmas in Charlie’s command post, more grim news crackled from the radio. A bomb had ripped through a foot patrol, wounding two soldiers and killing one, Specialist Clayton McGarrah, who had been in Afghanistan eight days. He had set down his backpack on a hidden mine’s pressure plate. “Another tough day,” Christmas said, and pressed his fingers to his temples. “I can’t even see his face. That sounds terrible, but he just wasn’t here that long.” Christmas had done three other Afghanistan deployments and one to Iraq, but this had been the most trying. Every day since he had taken command of Charlie a month earlier, his men had been sniped at, ambushed, or blown up. “All our family and friends are home right now eating hamburgers and shooting fireworks,” he told me. “And that’s good. I’m happy for them. But they need to understand the price of that freedom.”
By the time 2Charlie returned to Combat Outpost Tynes, Moon was in surgery at Kandahar Airfield, where doctors tried to repair the destruction. The soldiers gathered in the cavelike meeting area where they ate meals and prepared for patrols. The platoon’s cook had dinner waiting. Steaks, homemade mashed potatoes, and green beans. He’d put a sign on the plastic serving containers: “No one eats until EVERYONE is back.” Most soldiers sat quietly, alone in thought. “Moon’s alive,” Gerhart told them. “He’s conscious. They said he’s doing good.” Men nodded and smiled, buoyed by the news.
Knollinger stood amid them. 2 Charlie had been here many times. The newcomers would surely be here again. Both groups needed reassurance. “It sucks. It’s fucking scary,” he told them. “But we can’t let that deter us. We have to keep going.” If they stopped pushing into the fields and orchards, the Taliban would only come closer to the outpost, and the soldiers’ influence over the local population—already meager—would dwindle further. The new troops would need to patrol the fields and roads farther south, along and past the second canal, an area far more dangerous than where Moon had just been blown up. 2 Charlie had suffered two dead and five wounded there in recent weeks; many of its members had no interest in going back.
Two days later, on July 8, a dozen soldiers, the platoon’s noncommissioned officers, crowded into the outpost’s tactical-operations center, a 12-by-six-foot room jammed with computers, radios, and maps, to talk about the situation they faced. They passed an empty water bottle, their version of Ralph’s conch shell in Lord of the Flies, so each man could speak without interruption. Earlier in the deployment, this scene would have been unthinkable. Infantrymen volunteer to enter dangerous environments, a task many of them enjoy. And they know a hard truth of war: that they or some of their men must sometimes die to accomplish objectives. But with so much loss, and with the end of their time at Combat Outpost Tynes so near, the worth of a single patrol had been thrown into question. If the men of 2 Charlie walked south, some of them would likely not come back. But if they didn’t go, then their replacements would likely suffer for it.
“I don’t want my guys going,” Sgt. Andrew Bragg said. “I’ll go for them.” He passed the bottle to Knollinger, one of 2 Charlie’s most aggressive soldiers. “I want revenge,” he said, in a plain, deep-throated speaking style that reminded me of Rocky Balboa. “It’s not worth another casualty, but I personally want to go.” Knollinger passed the bottle to Lachance, who seemed to thrive on the battlefield, exposing himself to enemy fire to call in airstrikes with a surprising calm. “I don’t want to see people get blown up, because that sucks,” Lachance said. “I don’t think that this entire war is worth losing people for, so that sums it up for me.”
The bottle traveled, hand to hand, deeper into the debate: could they explain a soldier’s death to his family, days away from his leaving the Arghandab? But could they live with unprepared 101st soldiers dying, if they could have helped prevent their deaths? And if they stopped pushing into Taliban-held areas, the Taliban would gladly, and quickly, come to them. That morning, an IED had blown up on a foot patrol 200 meters from the combat outpost. Somehow, no one had been injured.
Staff Sgt. Rosa, 2 Charlie’s senior squad leader, took the bottle and looked around the room. Soft-spoken but regarded as the toughest soldier in the platoon, he’d won an 82nd Airborne boxing title. “This is a tough one for me. This is my third deployment with this platoon, and this is the first time we’ve gone through all this bullshit with casualties,” he said. “My guys have been going out every day. We’ve lost a lot. But at the same time, we can’t lose ground. Especially with the unit coming in. They need a good handoff. They could get slaughtered out there.”
His voice betrayed both pride and resignation. “If I gotta go out, and I’m going out with this group here, that’s fine with me.” He held the water bottle in both hands, elbows propped on knees, his massive shoulders hunched. “When we cross that second canal,” he said, “I think there’s going to be so much shit set in there, we’re going to have a catastrophic IED that’s going to take out a bunch of people.”
A patrol would indeed go south—a decision that ultimately was made at levels above those in the room. But the platoon’s noncommissioned officers had themselves concluded the same: the 101st needed to see the area and, on what would be its last mission to the Devil’s Playground, 2 Charlie needed to take them.